The Art of the SoloPerformer
  • The Art of the SoloPerformer

The Art of the SoloPerformer

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A GuideFor The Solo Artist ByDave Stamey"...Mr. Rapson knows whereof he speaks. This book is the Bible to anyone who aspires to the solo spot on any stage, be it folk music, rock, comedy or professional speaker. I have been a performer for twenty years and I can truthfully say that the stuff in this book is the real, no nonsense way to claw your

A Guide For The Solo Artist By Dave Stamey "...Mr. Rapson knows whereof he speaks. This book is the Bible to anyone who aspires to the solo spot on any stage, be it folk music, rock, comedy or professional speaker. I have been a performer for twenty years and I can truthfully say that the stuff in this book is the real, no nonsense way to claw your way through the music or speaking business, and it is delivered with wit and not a small bit of compassion. Take note, take heart, and ignore him at your own peril."

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Q&A with Steve Rapson 

If you have a question, send Steve an email.  We'll post the most useful ones here. 

This might sound like a dumb question but is solo guitar/vocals a viable combination? 

That's what I do in Boston. I occasionally work with a female singer doing the American Songbook thing. I don't like pre-recorded backing tracks, although many people use them. For me, simplicity is best. 


In most of the clubs I have visited, the performers are a younger group. Is this an issue? 

The main stream music business is about youth and sexuality. If you are not featuring either in your act then your audience is limited to those who have a diminished interest in either or both. You work hard to notch up the entertainment value in other areas: A good singing voice, a facility with the guitar, an eclectic song selection, humor, story telling, engagement with the audience. 

Can I play out of a book? How important is it to memorize all the repertoire? 

Kyle Shiver answers: 

Memorize as many as you can. If you don't have a great memory, read on. 

I have a three ring binder notebook with lyrics to over a hundred songs that I know how to play. I carry this with me at all times. Many folk singers are repulsed at this idea, but I regularly have people come up and go through my book and say. "Play that!" They are always very pleased. From playing so many gigs, I learned what people request the most, and I have a little of each artist in my book. I'm always adding new songs and taking out songs that don't do well. A friend of mine who works in Florida says "Duke Ellington had a book so why shouldn't I?" 

Am I expected to be a story teller type? 

You are expected to be entertaining. You do that in any way that feels right for you and works to attract and hold an audience. 

Do you do a written contract with every establishment you play? 

The higher the stakes, the more important a contract. Generally it's not worth my time to read, sign and mail a contract that protects my right to collect $50 or $100. If you find you are getting gigs that pay more, please write me and tell me how to get them. 

I have a friend who writes his own songs and is looking for a basic contract to be used when he records this music.

You don't need a contract, you need a copyright for the song and the recording. Go here to see how.

Once you have protected your song with a copyright the best thing that could ever happen to it would be for someone else to record it and have a big hit. This is not stealing. This is doing you a favor. 

A song that is released to the public is available for anyone else to record. This is called a compulsory mechanical license granted by The Harry Fox Agency, As long as they pay you via Harry Fox and/or one of three performance rights groups (ASACP, BMI, SESAC) one of which you would join once your song is published or released. 

Strictly speaking, if your song is just a demo and you don't release it, then it is not available for others to record without your permission. But say that someone does anyway. And say they have a huge hit. If they claim authorship, you have your rock-solid copyright to wave in the air. They have done all the hard work for you by making a hit of your song while you just collect the money, after your highly public court battle. 

I am stressed worrying about making a major mistake on stage. Do you have advice? 

I certainly understand and identify with your feelings. In the beginning every performer deals with them. My book was written to illuminate the source and the way out. The crux of it is: It is not what you think or feel that matters. It is what the audience thinks and feels as your material flows over them. 

Even those who are ineffective on stage know this and actively acknowledge the importance of getting immersed in the material, to disappear into it. Without the material, however, no amount of humility, disappearing, or easy relaxation is going to work. If you have had success on stage -- connected with your audience -- then you know what it feels like when your good material goes over. You will want to do this again and again. 

Knowing the truth is not enough. The only way to get around your dilemma is to perform every week. Playing and singing are physical skills. These kind of skills do not improve unless done under actual conditions. That's why the Army has live fire drills. 

I, too, am always concerend about whether my product measures up. It is a good practice to have quality control. Perfectionism while preparing is not all bad. But it is an act-killer if you bring it to the stage via self-observation and self-judgment. 

When you are performing for an audience your focus is on them and how they are receiving, not on you and how you are sending. It is similar to the discipline of active listening in a conversation: if you are listening to the speaker in order to get what is being said, then you are not thinking so much about what you are going to say when they stop talking.The type of personality that has a strong need to be in the spotlight and the center of attention is not usually a good act because they have their focus reversed. The best performers are those that have a strong need to connect with other people. They focus on their attention on the audience to transcend the distance and separation between us. We all live in our minds alone. The sharing of what is in our minds is how we become less alone. Every person has the potential to condense communication into what we call an "act" in the entertainment world. 

I've played for years around the country, who can I send my demo to? 

It is a myth or at least a misapprehension among new authors, songwriters, and poets that there are people in the music & publishing business whose job it is to listen to or read new work with an eye to picking the best and packaging it for sale. 

There is no one like that. The music business does have systems in place for sourcing new songs and singers and writers. Those systems are constructed to prevent the great unwashed from ever getting in the door. If you want to be heard, if you want a shot at a fair consideration of your work, then you must enter the system and play by its rules. The rules are the same for any business: 

  • Know your product. 
  • Know your customer. 
  • See a lot of people and ask all to buy. 

I do not mean to be glib. I mean to be accurate and brief. This is the way it is. 

Consider Proctor and Gamble, the world's largest maker of soap. They are always developing new soap brands and they have an R&D department that occasionally finds a new wrinkle in soap. From time to time an inventor believes he has a new idea about soap and will contact P&G to ask who he should present his new soap idea to. P&G's response goes something like this: 

"Dear Soap Inventor: My secretary/assistant has informed me that you have sent an idea about a new soap. We appreciate your interest, however I cannot consider or even read your letter. Our R&D department has many products and new formulations that may or may not be similar to yours. Therefore, to avoid patent infringement issues, we must return your letter unread. Thank you for your interest." 

I worked for Gillette (now owned by P&G) for many years and I wrote several letters like this. 

Selling music is no different than selling soap. The consumer of these products may see a qualitative difference, but the business end does not. The analogy breaks down only in that there are very few people with a burning desire to bring a new soap to market, but there are millions with a new song ready to be heard. 

A crowded supply side makes for a system that builds walls around itself just to keep the hordes at bay in order to do day to day business. If you want to sell your songs you must know what you are selling, to whom you are selling it and why they might find it of value. To get a chance to pitch you need to have contacts, a network, that you have built over time that allows you entrance into the system. 

You are right in that how-to books have little to say on who to send material to--there is no one as explained above.


Books: The Songwriters Market (new book every year, available at ). Jason Blume's, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success , and my book: The Art of the Soloperformer. 

For every rule there is an exception, someone who steps outside the system and finds a way in that is contrary to the way business is normally done. These are the stories that are fun to tell and thus are the only ones we hear. A few are; Donna Summer singing in the toilets as a cleaning women and being heard by a producer who makes her a star. Teen-aged Diane Warren getting a job as a clerk in a music company in order to slip her tapes to anyone important who walked in the door. I myself slipped Johnny Cash's limo driver a tape during a snow storm in Boston. He ignored me at first until I said, "Look at me, I'm old, I don't have much more time!" He laughed and rolled down his window and took the tape, assuring me he would hand it to Mr. Cash that night. I followed up with the Cash organization but nothing come of it. The song is still a good one and perhaps I should do more limo stalking. 

What do I have to do to perform copyrighted material for profit? 

If you arrange songs and do gigs as a cover band you are not responsible for paying copyright holders of those songs, the venue is responsible for all music played in their establishment. There are systems in place to collect this money. 

A cover band makes money from ticket sales at their live performances and from sales of their recordings of other people's songs. Composers (and holders of publishing/copyrights) of those songs make money when these songs are played on the radio and at public venues (via ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC). 

Composers are also paid (approximately 9.5 cents per song per CD or download, via the Harry Fox Agency) when their song is covered on somebody's CD. If the recording becomes a hit it usually means lots of airplay and lots of unit sales. 

That's why song writers are thrilled when another act records their song, especially if they are not a performer themselves. Shawn Colvin's hit CD "Cover Girl" made many song writers happy and a bit wealthier. 

Who do I call to make a quality recording but not pay too much? 

I recommend you read a few books: 

The Art of the SoloPerformer by Steve Rapson 

Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner 

All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Don Passman 

Since you are a singer I also recommend you visit 

Making music is easy and fun. Hard work is what it seems like when you are not having fun. There are no amateur singers. Pro and amateur are labels others might like to apply to us from time to time. Feel free to not label yourself.. 

If you want to record a demo of where you are now on the music path, keep it simple, easy and inexpensive. Have a goal for making the demo. Who will you send it to? What do you want them to do? Why should they do it? These are questions you will have to answer eventually. It's best to get the answers before you spend time and money making a demo and mailing it around. 

My name is Kristen and I have severe stage fright. What can I do to overcome this? 

Stage fright is the same as stage excitement. It is that feeling of being "up" and ready to do your best. It is a good thing. Many performers become flushed when they perform at their peak. They may sweat profusely and turn beet red. This happens when blood vessels dilate. It is the brain preparing you to do your best. All this is caused by the release of adrenaline. It is the "fight or flight" response. You want this to happen and then take action. Debilitating stage fright occurs when you neither fight nor flee. You grind in place taking no action while the engine races in high gear. Cars don't like this, your mind/body doesn't either. 

Experienced performers have learned that this elevated feeling is natural, it is something good to be used in their act. They have learned to control and use it. Beginners call it stage fright, It often gets out of control and prevents them from doing what they have prepared to do. 

So what needs to change is not your physical responses when you are about to perform, but your thoughts about it. Just as your body can be trained to go through certain motions automatically through repetition of the same action--called practice--you can train your mind to think the right things when these changes happen. 

The cure for stage fright is practice. Mozart said, "Slow practice makes for fast playing." Slow practice is meditation for the body. To help your mind you might try meditation. 

Here are some thoughts to meditate on. Meditation is to the mind what physical practice is to the body. 

1. If you are afraid of what people might think of you, be assured they are not thinking of you. They are thinking of themselves. 

2. If you are afraid you will make a mistake, be assured no one will notice you made a mistake unless you tell them or show them through body language that says you are not happy with your performance. They won't notice because they are too busy thinking their own thoughts which are about themselves. 

3. If you are afraid of the criticism of others, be assured that when you are criticized--rarely will this happen--the information you receive is about the speaker and not about you. As the saying goes, "What people say about others reveals more of themselves than about others." This goes for critics as well. 

4. If you receive praise from others, be assured that it is as meaningless as criticism. It is not good to let either enter that quiet place in your mind where you know the truth of all things. 

5. All greatness is built upon humility. A humble soul is the foundation for great acts. So when you are filled with self doubt, when you think your best is not good enough, when you do everything right and it stills looks wrong, you are being given humility. Humility is hard to come by. The proper response for such a great gift is gratitude. 

6. All performing is about and for the audience. Even an audience of one. Although our performance seems to say, "See me, hear me, touch me," all great performers turn this around and send the message, "I see you, I hear you, I touch you." This is the irony and the catch-22 of show business. The humble soul can do it. The fearful soul cannot. Fear is about you. Love and acceptance is about them. Fear wants to push away. Love and acceptance wants to take in. The love is for them; the acceptance is for yourself. 

As you meditate on these things, breathe deeply and slowly. Do this for a half hour every day. Fifteen minutes in the morning and another fifteen at night. 

If you are a singer, take lessons and do the exercises that will strengthen your singing muscles. 

If you do all these things you will be surprised--and humbled we hope--at the results. But you may not notice your success because you will be thinking of others.